Jazz Critics Awards

My favorite music columnist ever was Bob Tarte, who never let the fact that it was completely untrue get in the way of weaving an odd story into what should have been a collection of world music reviews. I mean he’d still review the cds, but the reviews would be worked into a strange narrative that sometimes was true and sometimes flat out bullshit. No matter. He wrote well, was funny as hell, and never met a genre he didn’t like.

One Sunday nite I was putting together the week’s Brick’s Picks and man what a dead week. It happens. I tried over and over to write a column that didn’t bore me to tears. No go. So I decided this was my Bob Tarte moment. And here was my opening paragraph:

Well, the Jazz Critics Guild had their awards ceremony, perhaps you saw it on TV. Stars galore, and world famous jazz musicians, and Hef and all the girls. Paparazzi and autograph seekers and Joan Rivers on the red carpet, trashing all our clothes. Billy Crystal couldn’t make it, but fill-in Ricky Gervais was sweet as pie. Quite the gentleman. Boney James grooved but unfortunately no one could understand anything he said the jive was so thick. Great hat, though. The presentation went on all night, and every critic went home clutching his Lenny except yours truly. Couldn’t even win the Tallest Jazz Critic award (who knew Kareem was reviewing jazz now?) All the critics left with their statuettes, Joan Rivers gushing and all the rock writers green with envy. Empty handed, I left for the after party. It was a drag. Kept getting mistaken for the bouncer.  Eventually everybody wound up in the recording studio under the pool at the Sunset Marquis laying down “We Are the World” in different time signatures. I couldn’t get into it and split for the Rainbow, got into an argument and was beaten up by Lemmy. This town will break your heart. 

I submitted and forgot about it.

A couple days later I get a panicky email from my editor. URGENT!!! Call me ASAP about column!!!!!!! So I called him. It was the first time we’d ever spoken actually…in fact he was one of the only of my thirteen editors at the LA Weekly to ever hear my voice. And to this day he’s still never met me. None did, I think, except the first couple. I preferred being the mysterious cat who turned in copy no one there could understand without ever being seen. That way they didn’t bug me and I didn’t demand they pay me what I was worth. (Writers got paid then. We didn’t yet owe it to our readers to write for the sheer privilege of having them read us. I have actually been told this, more than once.)  Anyway, my editor was freaking out bad. He said my first paragraph didn’t make any sense, and the other editors–his bosses–freaked. Apparently they couldn’t tell if it was real or not.  Maybe they were freaked out about lawsuits. Ricky Gervais would get all uppity English and sue. Joan Rivers would say something perfectly awful. Lemmy would beat them up. I have no idea. But my editor killed the lede. He editor was effusively apologetic. I think they expected me to throw a writerly tantrum. I guess we do that. But I just said no problem, I just made it all up anyway. It was a dull week. He sounded bewildered but relieved.

Hell, I said, I just thought it was funny. He didn’t. He would now, as he’s no longer there, but being an editor at the LA Weekly at the time was like working for Stalin in the 1930’s. A people’s hero one week, a non-person the next. All traces removed. At least the bullet to the back of the head was metaphorical.

Anyway, when the issue came out that Thursday the offending paragraph was excised, as I was told. In its place was the following:

“It’s awards season and even the Jazz Critics Guild got in on the red-carpet action.”

Which means they believed it. I don’t know who exactly–was it my editor (which I doubt), or the editors above him, or Stalin him or herself? I have no idea. But whoever it was, they believed it. The Jazz Critics Awards, the Jazz Critics Guild, Ricky, Joan, Lemmy, all of it. Even “We Are the World” under the pool ar the Sunset Marquis. I liked to think they fell for the whole bit, hook line and sinker.

I said to myself I can retire now.

And I did, a year later.

The new thing with feeling

(expanded from an online conversation today with John Altman) 

Ya know, if I’d stop writing my self-indulgent stuff and went back to writing about jazz I’d start getting invited to the pricey jazz things and fancy digs. Something to think about…..

But the last couple years I was at the LA Weekly writing Brick’s PIcks I was really hating the way I was writing. It was stuck, in a rut, doing the same thing over and over. It was so easy and I’d gotten cynical. I was feeling very dishonest as a writer and that is death.  I had to re-learn how to write so it was time to woodshed. Like breaking a badly set arm and letting it heal all over again. So I up and walked.

That gig was killing me. I absolutely hated it by the end. Hated it like you hate the worst job you ever had. It was turning me into a fake. I’d invented this ridiculous Brick’s Picks character, him with his royal we and oh so ridiculously hip, turning the emotional faucet on and off…I hated that guy. He was a joke. That’s what happens when you wind up a jazz journalist without ever wanting to be a jazz journalist. Finally I got my zillionth idiot editor and said fuck it, I’m gone. And I was.

So that’s where I went. People still ask, which amazes me. They still bitch, which irritates me. Sometimes I say nothing, sometimes (if they’re older) I mumble an apology, and sometimes (if they’re a friend and ought to know better) I tell them to just shut the fuck up. And I’m feeling better about my writing now. To quote Eric Dolphy’s post card to Oliver Lake (I wish I’d saved the picture), I’m trying to do the new thing but with feeling.

Ya know, I don’t think people realize that writing is like music and you have to practice every goddamned day. Practice till your brain hurts. Practice till everything around you is language, everything, and you need to stop and just look at things and try not to think.

Then start writing again.

I just wrote that sentence in electrons

Half the stuff I have ever written in my life disappears in unsaved drafts or forgotten and long obliterated emails. All the long first drafts of Brick’s Picks columns I gushed out…I’d trim them to the exact word count and turn all that excess writing back into random electrons. And I have no idea how many emails are no more, thousands and thousands of emails. I used to do my best stuff in emails. Some were saved. The ones written at work, however, they too are now electrons. They could run on for hundreds of words, for paragraphs, crazy tales of something or other and then poof…..gone. Words become crazy spinning electrons. Probably a million words have gone that way. Hundreds of stories. Thousands of vignettes. I never even think about it till suddenly I want to retrieve one like the tale of the girl I nearly squirted with pickle juice. Sounds funny now, but to a little kid from California plunked down on an island off the coast of Maine it was no laughing matter. Lobster bait. It was my very first day in Great Island Elementary School, the fifth school I’d attended in second grade….beginning in San Diego, a stop in Tacoma, a couple other places, then the wilds of Maine……and my mother packed me a brownbag lunch of a liverwurst sandwich on rye with a pickle and when I bit into that pickle it squirted…but just then the little girl sitting next to me ducked down to pick up a pencil or something and the juice arced clear over her head and landed unseen in the floor. I could see it there, a tiny little puddle. Probably the most relieved I ever felt in my entire life. That was half a century ago but I can still remember it vividly. I wrote down the whole thing in a longish email that is gone now. Just electrons. And you know how electrons are. Meaningless. Brownian. infinitesimally small. Too small to give a damn about, really, except that I just wrote that sentence in electrons.

It fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh….

It is a travesty that so little L.A. jazz is visible on YouTube. It really is. It’s not that nobody was filming…there was always somebody filming. So where the hell is the footage?  Typical lazy jazz fans…..Being one, I should know. But it’s a shame…all that extraordinary music and poof….it’s no more. Gone.

But I managed to find a clip of Herman Riley at Giannelli Square out in the Valley. Riley was one of the most perfect tenor players I ever witnessed. Breathtaking. And dig that Giannelli Square…..yet another lost L.A. jazz joint. The recession was brutal to this town’s jazz scene. Watching that scene melt away as the economy tanked was so sad it hurt. I had an especially stark vantage point writing Brick’s Picks for the LA Weekly during those years. The clubs closed up and all those connections drop away. All that music passes into history. Hell, not even that. It passes into oblivion, unrecorded. No one recorded it, no one filmed it, scarcely anyone even wrote about it. All that creativity existing purely in the now…and now that now was …then, and is gone. When we who saw it finally pass, it will not be history anymore, it will be gone, nothing. This town’s history does that, disappears. Plowed under, forgotten, never existed. It’s all future in L.A., and no past. Don’t look back, there’s nothing there.

I still miss Herman Riley. I recall a show at Charlie O’s…Herman Riley, Nate Morgan at the piano, John Heard and Roy McCurdy bass and drums. Damn. The music felt like it would live forever, but it doesn’t. In fact if I hadn’t written about it I probably wouldn’t even remember that particular night at all. Or maybe I would.

Yeah, I would. It was that good.


Just trying to capture the spirit of the thing


It just dawned on me that if I hadn’t stopped writing the Brick’s Picks jazzcolumn I could have used my LA Weekly cachet to score some righteous press passes to the Los Angeles Kings victory parade on Thursday. 

I spent seven years writing that goddamned column. I spent twenty years a devoted Kings fan. I hated writing Brick’s Picks…maybe not at first but by the end it was nothing but misery. And you had to be a masochist to be a goddamned Kings fan all those years. Sure jumping on the bandwagon in ’92 was great, but staying on meant getting used to the cellar, humiliation, failure, pitying looks from Canadians or insults from people from San Jose in those fey teal jerseys. It meant watching your team finally make the playoffs only to be swept–swept–in the first round. And then doing the exact same thing two seasons later. It meant only once making it to the second round.  It meant watching the owner go to jail for counterfeiting old coins. It meant watching Rob Blake and wondering why the hell he was still here. It meant saying goodbye to the Great One when he left for a shot at a cup. It meant Lakers fans who had no idea who or even what the Kings were. It meant trying to believe it every time they said the miserable failure of  a hockey franchise was in a “rebuilding phase”. It meant feeling kinda sorry for Bob Miller but never saying so. It meant being a little heartbroken when Warren Wiebe died. It meant watching the Mighty Ducks win the cup. It meant not being sure what was lonelier, being a Kings fan or a jazz fan in Los Angeles. And not caring. Because I loved jazz, and I loved hockey. So what if sometimes it felt like nobody else did. 

But if I had known the goddamn Kings were going to be Stanley Cup Champions this year after one of the most improbably glorious post-season runs in NHL history, I would never have quit the Weekly. I’d still be there, grinding out the column every Sunday night and hating every second of it. I would have done it because I could have called in some favors and gotten me a couple passes to the press section and watch this silly-assed parade. I would have so loved that. I could stop watching the end of Slapshot and being jealous of the extras cheering like mad for a fictional hockey team.

So this is the first time I have regretted quitting my gig at the L.A. Weekly. It’s a dumb reason, I know.  And it’s a selfish reason, I know that too. But it’s a good reason. You see, the Charlestown Chiefs have won the championship of the Federal League. Yup. Finally. And all that stuff before, the failures and disappointments and the what-the-fucks?…well, who cares. It only makes this year even better. Amazing. Miraculous. Great. Just great. Beautiful, even.

Oh…and my second favorite team?  The New Jersey Devils. Now what are those odds?

OK…..and I have another confession, and now that the Kings are Stanley Cup Champions it’s not so embarrassing. Well, it’s embarrassing, but not so pathetic. You see, I have only been star struck once in my life. It was a couple years ago, at the height of my hipness. While leaving the St. Patrick’s Day festivities at LALive (press passes with free everything, of course) I run smack dab into Luc Robataille. Luc. Ohmygod. I said–and I quote–wow, you’re Luc Robataille. He said yes I am. I tried to say something hip and knowledgeable but nothing came out. Just a few incoherent syllables. He nodded and walked on. I said to my wife–and I quote–that was Luc Robataille. She said yes I know. I told everyone I that week that I had met Luc Robataille. They said who? Except for Kings fans. They said wow. And then they said Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuc.